“Keeping the blues alive” has been a catchphrase for years. And among other things, it’s also a cruise, a musicians relief program, and an annual award. But no matter where you find them, the words have the same purpose: Trying to make sure that the great music of the blues never dies.
That phrase has taken on new meaning in the past year, with a pandemic shutting down music venues, turning off the music, and creating financial strain for club owners, concert promoters and the musicians themselves. Many of them have taken to the internet with virtual shows on Facebook and other media. A Facebook group called Can’t Stop the Blues has provided a forum for dozens of performers. I’ve also seen John Nemeth on his front porch, Rory Block in her living room, and Ronnie Baker Brooks in his basement.
But that’s not quite the same experience as live music, shared with friends and fans, and feeling the musicians feed on a roomful of enthusiastic fans.
That’s what you got at Moondog’s.
I know, because I spent a lot of nights there, enjoying gin and tonic (and cigars, before we started to care about our health), and some of the best blues talent in the world.
Moondog’s is small, intimate bar (maybe 250 people, elbow to elbow at its most intimate) whose purpose is mainly music — no kitchen, no ferns, no valet parking — in the tiny Pittsburgh suburb of Blawnox, where it has lived for its past 31 Moondog years.
There’s nothing fancy about the place, just the musical magic that comes from musicians up close, filling that hole in your soul. I can remember nights when the audience dwindled down to 10 or 20 at the end of the closing set, but the musicians never let up.
Like many such blues joints, a year without business hasn’t helped. It’s run by Ron “Moondog” Esser, who has been a fixture on the Pittsburgh area music scene a few notes short of forever, with his club long a nexus for the local blues scene, and making his own music before that. Here’s a Q&A with Ron by a Scott Mervis, a former colleague at a former employer, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, that will tell you a little about Ron.
So, because of Ron’s background, his help for area musicians and his devotion to music, Mark Byars and Cheryl Rinovato, a couple of musicians who think Moondog’s should be kept alive, are producing three nights of music online this weekend (March 26-28), to help keep the dog and the music going. When it returns live, of course.
Ron is humble about this unexpected help. In the Post-Gazette interview, he says: “This fundraiser, I really didn’t want them to do it, but they’re doing it anyway, and I’m grateful. I’m eternally grateful.”
And we haven’t even mentioned his shepherding of the Pittsburgh Blues Festival for many years.
The National Blues Foundation honored Ron Esser with the “Keeping the Blues Alive” award in 2005.
Seventy artists are booked for the weekend’s virtual festival, including national acts Tommy Castro, Barbara Blue, Joanna Connor, Selwyn Birchwood, Mike Zito, Vanessa Collier, Jerry Cortez (from Tower of Power) and Jason Ricci, and Pittsburgh acts such as Joe Grushecky, Bill Toms, Billy Price, Norm Nardini, Soulful Femme, Bobby Thompson, the Granati Bros., Charlie Barath, Matt Barranti, Ms. Freddye and the Neids Hotel Band.
A few of the national acts Moondog’s has hosted:
Susan Tedeschi, Keb’ Mo’, Derek Trucks, Koko Taylor, Luther Allison,Junior Wells, Jimmy Vaughn, Tommy Castro, the Nighthawks, Jimmy Thackery, Maria Muldaur, Pat Travers, Candy Kane, Ana Popovic, former Beatle Pete Best, Johnny “Clyde” Copeland, Walter Trout, Tinsley Ellis, Shemekia Copela, Lil Ed and the Imperials, Long John Hunter, James Cotton, Chris Duarte, Johnny Clyde Copeland, Rod Piazza, Corey Harris, Monster Mike Welch, Luther Allison, Shemekia Copeland, Brian Auger and Jim Croce’s son, A.J. Croce.
Plus several generations of Pittsburgh area musicians, including Norman Nardini, Bill Toms, Guitar Zack, Glen Pavone, Billy Price, Gary Belloma and the Blue Bombers, Jill West and the Blues Attack, the Jimmy Alder Band, Patty Spadero, the SPUDS, Nieds Hotel Band, Good Brother Earl, Bill Deasy and more.
None of this means that there isn’t a multitude of similar clubs across the country undergoing similar hard times. I just happened to know about Moondog’s because I used to live and work nearby. In fact, performers at Moondog’s often wound up on my previous blog, BlueNotes. So I jumped at the chance to highlight a national condition with this local connection.
Here are a few of those artists (and a chance to show off some of my favorite photo work), most with a view of Moondog’s stage wall, painted with caricatures of well-known artists, but with a dog’s head.